At the dawn of early Christianity

The spa resort of Sandanski boasts a very rich archaeological heritage

The Episcopal Basilica complex in the centre of Sandanski reveals significant details of the history of early Christianity on the Balkans.

One of the southernmost Bulgarian towns, Sandanski is popular beyond the borders of Bulgaria as a spa resort. What is far less known is its rich and significant archaeological and historical heritage. Authorities in Sandanski only recently started promoting it, mainly thanks to the construction of the ancient complex surrounding the so-called Episcopal Basilica that dates back to the 5th-6th centuries, a project funded with EU money.

The basilica itself was uncovered in 1989 during salvage archaeological excavations. A baptism room, an inner courtyard, and buildings connected to church life and various rituals performed during the period of early Christianity, were found in the vicinity of the basilica. At the heart of the complex is a classical three-nave basilica, impressive with its monumental stature, interior architecture and magnificent floor mosaics and murals.

It is a single-apse building made of round river rocks interspersed with layers of three to five rows of bricks, representing a late Roman construction technique known as opus mixtum. The basilica's naos is composed of a main and two side naves, divided by Roman-Corinthian style columns. Together with the capital and the base, the columns used to stand at the impressive height of five metres, while the building's side walls reached 11 metres.

The first pulpit found in the ancient town beneath modern Sandanski remains sunken into the marble flooring. The first step to it and the lead welded points of the railing columns have been preserved to this day. The chancel, separated from the main nave by a unique partition depicting scenes from the Gospel, features mosaics in the opus sectile style. The building doubled as a seat of the bishop and the actual seat of power, from which the town and its adjacent area along the Middle Struma Valley region were run.

Today, the complex of the Episcopal Basilica is featured in one of the largest projects for cultural and historical tourism in Bulgaria - Sandanski, the Dawn of Early Christianity. The project envisions a restoration of the main part of the basilica, which dates back to the 4th-5th centuries, as well as the atrium. For this purpose, the basilica now has a protective metal-and-glass cover, which shows the true monumental dimensions of the building and protects the mosaics already restored.

The settlement near the thermal springs emerged as early as the 2nd millennium BC and was there during the times of Thracians and Romans. In the 5th-6th centuries, it was one of the most important settlements on the Balkans, but at the end of the 6th century it was destroyed during the incursions of barbarian tribes and fell into decay. In the Middle Ages, the town was revived under the name Sveti Vrach (translated as saint healer) in memory of the brothers Sts Cosmas and Damian, known as healers. The name was changed to Sandanski in 1947. The modern town was built entirely on the site of the ancient settlement, evident in many spots in downtown Sandanski, including the local archaeological museum, which shows numerous exhibits in situ.

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